In Allan Sherman’s 1963 hit tune “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” a boy at Camp Granada writes to his parents exaggerating about his summer camp’s unsafe conditions, which include kids who get poison ivy, ptomaine poisoning, and malaria and even have to swim in a lake that has alligators.

While the classic song is really about a homesick child’s attempt to return to Mom and Dad, for the parents of millions of American children who will attend camps this year, safety should be taken seriously.

“Parents sometimes make the mistake of focusing primarily on what a camp offers, if the kids will have fun, and what the learning opportunities are” said Dr. Mary L. Pulido, executive director of The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC). “They should also be asking how the program is managed, about their licensing and if they’re accredited.”

Camps are a $15 billion a year industry and parents have more choices than ever when it comes to choosing day or overnight camps, according to the American Camp Association (ACA). There are more than 7,000 residential (overnight) camps and 5,000 day camps in the U.S. that employ about 1.5 million staff, according to ACA figures from 2011 and 2010.

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“A Culture of Safety”

Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance (NCA), says camps should be an open book when it comes to child safety. Parents should know that camp staff is well trained to handle medical emergencies and can identify potential safety hazards, and that the camp has policies to prevent and respond to allegations of physical or sexual abuse. The ACA requires camps to meet all of these standards, and many more.

“ACA Accreditation is a process by which camps in the United States undergo a voluntary audit of their programs and operations,” says Tom Holland, CEO of the ACA. “The process is educational in nature and is made up of 290 standards that reflect the most up to date, research-based standards in camp.”

These standards cover, among others issues, drinking water testing, sleeping quarters accommodations, dishwashing procedures, food refrigeration and handling and transportation policies and training. They require a qualified doctor or nurse to be on site daily, first aid training for staff, record keeping procedures, security policies, camper orientations and more.

“Camps should be addressing safety first,” says the NCA’s Huizar.

Related: How to Prepare Your Child for Summer Camp

Questions parents should ask

Pulido and the ACA recommend parents ask as many questions as they need to. Some questions might include:

  • What licensing and accreditation do you maintain? Camp leaders should be able to prove licensing with the state and show if they’re accredited by the ACA and other organizations.
  • What are your policies about handling emergencies and how is your staff trained to deal with them?
  • How are staff screened? Does each staff member undergo annual criminal background checks, including with the National Sex Offender Registry?
  • What is your staff to children ratio? The ACA recommends one staff member for every six children between ages 6 and 8 at an overnight camp, and even fewer per staff member for younger children.
  • How does the camp handle disciplinary matters with campers and staff?
  • What are your swim lifeguard qualifications and required skills? Are all camp staff trained in first aid/CPR?
  • Do you have a doctor or nurse on the premises? What hours of the day are they there? How do you handle an emergency if they are not present? How are parents notified if there is an emergency?
  • Will my child be going off premises on field trips? If so, how is transportation handled? What are the training requirements for staff who transport children?
  • How are visitors screened? And what are your policies for drop off and pickup?
  • How does the camp handle sensitive or personal issues among campers? How do you address bullying?

Related: Life-Saving Water Safety Tips: Make Your Pool a Drowning-Free Zone

Finally, Huizar recommends that parents check everything out when it’s time to drop off their child. Parents should look for anything suspect, especially when it comes to safety.

“You would see in old movies that parents used to pull up, drop the kids off and then take off down the road,” Huizar said. “That's not the best approach.”

Ronald Agrella is a freelance writer and former editor of The Boston Globe’s Boston.com.